A controversial campus

A US university has mishandled abuse cases

As mishandling of historic abuse cases goes, recent moves by America’s Bob Jones University (BJU) have set the bar to a new high.

Beset by serious allegations from a number of students and staff, the conservative Christian institution, claiming some 3,800 students on its Greenville, South Carolina campus, made moves late in 2012 to be seen to deal definitively with the issue, hiring in a professional and independent body from the evangelical Christian community to fully audit its safeguarding policies. Part of this saw the group, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) meet with alleged victims of abuse towards a full report to be completed by the end of February.


Regular updates as to the investigation were offered by GRACE across 2013, seeming to promise a voice at last to those who felt not just abandoned but stymied by BJU. And then, on January 27, the plug was pulled and the university terminated GRACE’s role with barely a month to go, requesting in its letter to GRACE “that all documents, information and interviews be kept confidential”.

For context, imagine for a moment the impact of such a move on the part of the Irish bishops (had they had the ability to do so) as the Murphy Commission neared the conclusion of its investigation into the Archdiocese of Dublin. The term ‘field day’ would surely have come into play on the part of media outlets gearing up for broad coverage of the report findings.

No such cynical scenario unfolded in Ireland, of course, and the BJU action thus stands as a dramatic new chapter in the scandals of our age, while a ‘field day’ response is exactly what it got as a consequence.

National and international coverage of the investigation’s 11th hour termination was immediate, and, worse still, those who had quietly engaged with GRACE and in good faith emerged to avail of the very public platforms to speak of their experiences and the sense of betrayal by a university which has long billed itself as a bastion of Christian fortitude and teaching.


One of those neatly summing up the experiences of those linked to the BJU scandal is Catherine Harris, a former BJU student who told The New York Times that once she had brought her allegation of abuse to university authorities: “The person who supposedly counselled me told me if I reported [her alleged attacker] to the police, I was damaging the cause of Christ, and I would be responsible for the abuser going to Hell. He said all of my problems were as a result of my actions in the abuse, which mostly took place before I was 12, and I should just forgive the abuser.”

Another former student, Camille Lewis, echoes this in her own account of attempting to help a girl via BJU who was allegedly abused by her father. Lewis recounted: “They said not to go to the police because no one will believe you, to defer to authority like your father or especially someone in the church. They said if you report it, you hurt the body of Christ.”


All terribly familiar, yet the relevance of this to a Catholic readership goes far beyond any parallels to woes endured by the faithful over past years in terms of ‘in-house’ scandals. For, since its establishment in 1927 by Bob Jones Snr (and led since by three subsequent generations of Joneses), the ethos of BJU has been one of a distinctly anti-Catholic flavour, with dismissal of the Church of Rome as a ‘cult’. When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, the university’s then president, Bob Jones III is alleged – by former student and Catholic priest Fr Dwight Longenecker – to have told his students that “Pope Paul VI, archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an Antichrist, has, like Judas, gone to his own place”.

Ironically, BJU’s feelings towards the Church are not replicated when it comes to Church-sponsored art. Courtesy of Bob Jones Jnr, the university possesses what has been described as one of the premier collections of Italian Renaissance to Baroque art in the United States.

(Closer to home, someone who has also held similar antipathy to the Catholic Church, the former Democratic Unionist Party leader, the Rev. Ian Paisley, was awarded an honorary degree by BJU in 1966.)

Such anti-Catholic sentiment has previously caused trouble for those linked with BJU. In 2001, as newly-elected President George W. Bush sought congressional approval for his nominee for attorney general, John Ashcroft, opponents were quick to associate Mr Ashcroft with BJU, where he collected an honorary degree in 1999.


The date is crucial. For, while political opponents of Bush and Ashcroft were afforded the opportunity to demonise BJU as fundamentalist and anti-Catholic, they were also able to point out that in the year Mr Ashcroft visited BJU to receive his award, the university had not yet ended its bar on inter-racial relationships on campus.

The throwback to the years of segregation was one that BJU showed itself especially slow to end. In the 1970s it did finally admit black students, but kept its strict ban on inter-racial relationships in place until the year 2000. And it was only in 2008 that the university apologised for the policy. That year, university President Stephen Jones, great-grandson of the founder stated: “We conformed to the culture rather than provide a clear Christian counterpoint to it. In so doing, we failed to accurately represent the Lord and to fulfill the commandment to love others as ourselves. For these failures we are profoundly sorry.”

Meanwhile, the sexual scandals were mounting.

Matters may now finally be coming to a head for BJU. In December, President Jones announced his intention to step down due to long-term ill health, potentially ending the generational control over the institution and, perhaps, its actions in responding to students’ needs.

In terms of the GRACE investigation, meanwhile, a meeting between the group and the university resulted in an announcement at the end of February that the investigation is to recommence, though no date for the completed report was offered.

Working now to deal effectively with a legacy of abuse and to build better safeguarding policies for its charges, BJU must surely be seeking a model of best practice to emulate.

Could that be the Catholic Church?